One of the prime purposes -- or possibly by-products -- of religion is to help adherents find meaning in their lives. And by meaning I mean something larger than ourselves, something that's even beyond our complete grasp and understanding.
The book is both engaging and annoying. Ruse writes whimsically at times and clearly enjoys what he's doing. But in his rejection of Christianity (he was reared a Quaker), he simply misstates at times what the faith teaches, sometimes preferring instead to rely on common misunderstandings.
A prime example is his description of Christianity's teachings about eternal life: "We can join God in heaven," he writes, "but only if we behave down here on earth."
No. That's works righteousness. That notion of how we get to heaven, if at all, suggests that we must earn our way there by being good boys and girls. It completely misses the core Christian teaching about grace.
I must add that sometimes Ruse is not clear whether he's simply summarizing the thinking of others or is offering his own take on matters. So perhaps -- I honestly could not tell -- in the quote about heaven I just gave you he was trying to say something like, "Lots of Christians believe that we can join God in heaven. . ." A good editor could have cleared that up.
In any case, he should have made clear whether this was his own misunderstanding or whether he was passing along someone else's misunderstanding.
He also says that for John Calvin, founder of the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity, the presence of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion is "just symbolic."
No. It was just symbolic for reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who argued about this matter with reformer Martin Luther. But Calvin was a believer in the "Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament, though he and other non-Catholic Real Presence believers did not and do not use the Catholic doctrine of "transubstantiation" to explain how that presence manifests itself in the Eucharist.
If Ruse got those two matters about Christianity wrong, one wonders what else he got wrong that may have caused him to leave the faith.
He also, by the way, seems to assume that the theory of atonement called the penal substitutionary theory is somehow at the core of Christianity to explain why Jesus went to the cross. But, in fact, many theologians today have rejected that theory. They have moved away from it because it gets things backwards. It suggests that God loves us because Christ died for us, whereas what Christianity really teaches is that Christ died for us because God loves us. Quite a difference.
Much of the book is taken up with thoughts about the difference Charles Darwin made in the world with his theory about evolution through natural selection. After and because of Darwin, people of faith -- especially biblical literalists -- were profoundly challenged. They somehow had to figure out how evolution and divine creation could co-exist.
Many people, including Ruse, could not figure out how to make that happen, so they abandoned religion, and yet still tried to find some helpful concept of meaning to life.
In the end, Ruse concludes that "the meaning of life has to come from within." He calls himself an agnostic, meaning he doubts there is a God and doubts there is life after death, but just doesn't know "whether life has any -- time for those capitals -- Ultimate Meaning."
So his advice is this: "Live for the real present, not the hoped-for future. Leave it at that."
Well, it's not bad advice, but, in the end, not worth the 170 pages it took to get there. Although having spent several hours getting through those pages, I'm a little closer to my death and to the possibility of finding out whether Christianity or Ruse is right. I'm betting against Ruse. My bet is called faith. Faith isn't a crutch. It's a way of living boldly without certitude -- because certitude kills faith.
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THE ORIGINS OF RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE
The murderous Easter bombings in Sri Lanka should be seen in a context that, this New York Times analysis says, shows that "religious minorities of many faiths have been battered by this surge of nationalism and sectarian politics." Here again, religious certitude is leading its proponents toward violence. And no one is safe.